A Safe Place for Seeds (and a favorite article of mine)

I collect pet articles. “Seeds to Save a Species” from Popular Science is one of my collection. It was written before the global food crisis became well publicized, and predicted it in some ways. It is those who dedicate their lives to preserving genetic diversity in the world’s crops. It touches on a global network of national seed vaults, with Svalbard Global Seed Vault as their backup. It gives a background on the politics and science of genetic diversity. But more interesting to me are the stories of the biologists who hunt seeds. These people sound more like adventuring explorers than lab rats.

Many of these scientists revere Nikolai Vavilov, “the Russian botanist who in the early 20th century developed a landmark theory about the origins of cultivated crops” (“Seeds to Save a Species”, Hillary Rosner, Popular Science, 2008). His theory was that “[t]he area where a crop has had the most time to evolve […] will be the area where that crop contains the greatest breadth of genetic diversity” (ibid). Vavilov is “both a hero and a martyr”:

He spent his career crossing places like China, Bolivia and Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) on foot, camel and donkey, gathering what was at that time the world’s largest collection of seeds, both cultivated and wild, for conservation. The genetic diversity contained in those seeds, he believed, represented humanity’s hope for survival. But politics got in the way of his work. Stalin wanted nothing to do with genetics, and Vavilov’s progressive ideas amounted to heresy. In 1940, in his early 50s, Vavilov was jailed for pursuing “impractical science.” Three years later, he starved to death in prison.

Vavilov wasn’t the only Russian scientist who died in the name of crop diversity. During the 872-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad, Vavilov’s colleagues holed up inside the gene bank he founded, determined to protect the seed collection from the Germans and the city’s hungry residents. There, locked inside a building filled with seeds, roughly a dozen scientists died of starvation.

“The rice breeder literally died sitting at his desk with bags of rice,” says Fowler, shaking his head. “I remember visiting the Vavilov Institute in 1985 and trying to understand what had gone on in this building that people would starve to death rather than eat food on their desks.” He posed the question to a woman then connected to the Russian institute. “She looked at me quizzically and said, ‘They were students of Vavilov.’ As though that explained it all.”


Such understated heroism hits me in the heart–it speaks of a level of faith and commitment which is hard to understand. Anyway, it’s a great article and I hope you enjoy it.

Inspirational Quote:

“I am going to be rather hard-nosed and say that if you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you’re writing. And if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal. If that is not the case, but you find that it is hard going and it just doesn’t flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work.”– Ursula K. Le Guin, which I first heard on the Writers’ Almanac for October 21, 2008.

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